No one’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session, Mark Twain famously remarked. Unfortunately for many Floridians, the Florida Legislature has taken Twain’s words more as a challenge, rather than a warning.
A recent Tampa Bay Times editorial was right when it said that under the current regime in Tallahassee, “it is harder for citizens to vote and for the jobless to collect unemployment. It is easier for renters to be evicted and for borrowers to be charged high interest rates on short-term loans. It is harder for patients to win claims against doctors who hurt them and for consumers to get fair treatment from car dealers who deceive them. It is easier for businesses to avoid paying taxes, building roads and repairing environmental damage.”
And yet the sausage made over the next 60 days in Tallahassee won’t taste nearly as bad as it is made to seem. Most legislation — bad and good — dies an unceremonious death simply because lawmakers run out of time. What does emerge from the capital is often much different than what was expected at the beginning. It’s rather amazing how some of the hot-button issues that dominate a session are not on most observers’ radar screens the first week of March.
Likewise, it’s very difficult to predict how individual legislators’ personalities will clash and congeal over the next two months. No one expected the Florida Senate in 2011 to collapse under the leadership of then-President Mike Haridopolos. Who knows what some legislative wild cards, like Sen. Jack Latvala (once referred to as the “dark star” of that legislative body), have up their sleeves this session.
Many newspapers offer previews of what to expect during the 2014 session and they are must-reads if you want to know what are the front-burner issues. In addition to those, here are four trends that could help define the 2014 session.
1. Is this the beginning of the end for Speaker Will Weatherford or the end of the beginning? The Pasco Republican, as effective as any Speaker of the GOP era, is touted by his counterpart, Senate President Don Gaetz, as a future U.S. senator or governor. And yet the next steps for Weatherford are unclear. In fact, there is no natural next step for him, as there is no open congressional or state Senate seat for which he could run. Not running for statewide office while serving as Speaker is likely one of the reasons Weatherford has been such an effective legislative leader. But in 60 or so days, Weatherford will be at the end of the line and still in his early 30s. It’s doubtful this is the last we will see of Weatherford, but once you’ve taken the boy to Paris, it’s hard to imagine him returning to the countryside.
2. Latvala or Negron? Casting a pall over the Florida Senate is the unresolved issue of who will be Senate President beginning in 2016. Lawmakers know Andy Gardiner will succeed Gaetz and that Bill Galvano will likely lead the chamber in four years, but it’s still not settled whether Joe Negron or Jack Latvala will preside in 2016. Negron supporters just swear that their guy has the votes, but if he did, we’d know by now. Latvala refuses to concede, hanging onto a handful of dedicated supporters and the hope that he may add one more if there is a GOP primary to replace Lizbeth Benaquisto, who is running for Congress. Senators, by nature, do not like this kind of disorder. Meanwhile, several major legislative issues, such as reform of public employee pensions, hang in the balanace as Negron and Latvala continue to circle around each other.
3. What, if anything, can Democrats do to influence the 2014 session? Outgunned and outmanned, there’s really not much Sens. Chris Smith and Arthenia Joyner and Reps. Perry Thurston and Mark Pafford can do to slow down the GOP juggernaut — or can they? Will there be a repeat of the slowdown the Democrats forced in the Florida House in 2013?
4. What impact will the 2014 gubernatorial race have on the session? This actually may be the trend that most defines the upcoming session. Republican lawmakers won’t say it, but every poll to date indicates that Charlie Crist could very well replace Rick Scott in the Governor’s mansion. The fear of that is forcing many lawmakers to accelerate their plans in case Florida has divided government for the first time since 1999.